Life Is an Act of Becoming: A Conversation with Ian William Craig

Posted by on February 18, 2016


The Wizard of Oz has nothing on Ian William Craig. The Vancouver artist’s works for classical voice and deteriorating tape machines reach superhuman scale in their terrifying beauty. They’re sublime in the original sense of the word. When you listen to his songs and hear his vocal fragments loop and curlicue and drone and mourn and crescendo, it’s hard to imagine this stuff not coming from an angelic source, or from the embers of some force of nature. Pull back the emerald curtain, though, and you’ll find a warm, humble, kind, and adventurous conversationalist. In early 2015, Cokemachineglow (R.I.P.) published a wonderful and capacious interview with Ian that touched on his classical vocal training, his childhood love of bombastic rock, his theory of everything, and his singular album A Turn of Breath. When Sean McCann’s label Recital released Ian’s newest LP Cradle for the Wanting last November, it seemed like a perfect time to follow Cokemachineglow’s example and talk to Ian about… well, everything.

Once Ian and I started chatting over Skype, I realized I was in for an even more wide-ranging odyssey than I’d prepared for. Our conversation stretched to a half-marathon length of two hours, and even though supertangents about the San Francisco Bay Area’s housing crisis and the polemical Canadian rock star Matthew Good have been removed, the result hews closer to the length of an oral history than that of a typical interview. On our journey, Ian talked with me about his introduction to classical voice, the challenge of learning to sing naturally, his experience as a visual artist and teacher at the University of British Columbia, humility in the creative process, the economic climates for artists in British Columbia and Alberta, the limitations of live performance, cassette culture, and his dream of creating a giant custom gramophone. By the time I finished the transcript, the first pressing of Cradle for the Wanting had already sold out. (Don’t worry: all of Ian’s music is still available digitally, and Ian has a new tape called Zugzwang for Fostex upcoming on Patient Sounds.) Every minute of that conversation was an utter joy.

When you started singing and making music, what were you playing? Were you in any rock bands as a kid?
I guess I was, actually. In high school, maybe even junior high school too, we played a lot of what I would describe as Can-rock. I don’t know if you’re too familiar with the Canadian rock ‘n roll history, but in the 90s there were a bunch of bands that had a very specific sound. Our Lady Peace, and the Tragically Hip, and Tea Party. The band that we formed was kind of a cover band of that genre. I’m not sure how else to describe it. It was just a very generic 90s alt-rock band. But at the same time, I was in a jazz choir in high school too, so those were probably the two first musical experessions outside of just discovering it on my own.

So was the jazz choir the first place you sang in a formal setting?
As far as I remember. I remember singing at assembly in elementary school and that sort of thing, but between the jazz choir and the rock band, those would be the first two formal group settings. If you could call the rock band formal. No recordings from that period exist.

How did you get into classical training? Did that dovetail with the rock band or jazz choir?
I actually didn’t keep the rock band up, for typical internal rock band reasons. We sort of imploded. Actually, embarrassingly enough, I think I actually brought “The Rainbow Connection” to one of the practices and honest-to-goodness said, “Hey, we should do this song.” And that didn’t go over well, for very obvious reasons. But the jazz choir led me into musical theater. This is in high school, so this is going back a long time, so the details are a bit fuzzy. But the director of the jazz choir was doing a collaboration with the drama teacher, and they wanted to put on a production of Man of La Mancha. Beautiful piece of work. So what ended up happening was the drama teacher was trying to put on this musical, and the music teacher was kind of counseling the drama teacher to put in actual singers, but the drama teacher didn’t want to do that. He wanted it to be kind of an art brut piece. So they split the difference, and I ended up being cast as Sancho Panza. And so I really super enjoyed that. To be perfectly honest, that was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.

That’s awesome!
Oh, was it ever awesome. It was like a perfect storm of a lot of my sensibilities coming together. One of the things that drew me to power rock was the bravado and the theatrical aspects of it, and so I think Man of La Mancha was one of the very first legitimate expressions of that [for me]. But it was still very theatrical, very composed. And the play itself is very intricate. It deals with all these layers within layers. It’s like a play within a play, but it pulls it off in a really eloquent manner. It was very inspiring. Plus the drama teacher was this really powerful, Ernest Hemingway-esque figure, complete with the crusty, white Norwegian beard and the pipe. He was so enchanting and inspiring. He was one of the formative figures in my life. So it was this perfect storm. And the musical aspect of it caused me to want to pursue vocal training from then on. So it was at that point. I think Man of La Mancha was grade twelve for me, so I would have been seventeen or something.

Did that lead into a musical theater phase? When you started singing, was it a mix of older pieces and then more contemporary works?
I suppose so. We covered a chunk of the Andrew Lloyd canon, which was more recital-based stuff. But we went into a lot of the operatic stuff, too. We sang a lot of arias. And then when I went to university. I started to become heavily involved with a lot of choirs that were there.

I know it’s been put out there that I have sung operatically, and while it’s true that I have an operatically trained voice, I was never in the opera per se. It was more of the choral tradition. I guess it would be more accurate to say I have a classically trained voice. But it was nice. The teacher I had didn’t dive too deeply into any one style. I didn’t get immured into strictly tenor bravado or that kind of musical theater. What’s the word I’m looking for, the maudlin…

Yeah, that’s the one. And I still maintained a bedroom love of the Steven Tyler wail. So it was really nice to get a cross section of all sorts of different styles, and to not dive too deeply into one and thereby anchor myself to it. But probably the choral tradition would have been the one I focused most heavily on, just by merit of the community I was involved in. And so over the eight or nine years that I was going to university, I was in choirs that whole time.

How much classical training did you do with an instructor, doing solo pieces?
A couple of years after high school. Between ’97 and ’99 would have been when I was one-on-one with a teacher. And I suppose when I moved to Vancouver, about six years ago, I was with a couple of vocal teachers, just to see what was out there. To be perfectly honest, my voice is really not in great shape at the moment. I need to brush up or find a group of humans to sing with. But I would count my time in the choirs in the university as a kind of formal training.

Was there any reason you decided to stop doing one-on-one and focus on choral, group singing?
Honestly, at that point, it was just a matter of time management. I was going to school for something completely different and becoming more and more involved with the visual art community, and that started to take up a great deal of my time. And as I get older, I realize that I have a creative sensibility that likes to orbit a whole bunch of things, and I didn’t really realize at that point how much my vocal training was informing my visual art sensibilities and vice versa, now that I’ve had an opportunity to form a bit more of a balance between those two things. But it wasn’t a conscious decision. It was more what was going on at the time. I didn’t have any time to devote to one-on-one vocal training because school was taking up so much time.

And then frankly, after I got finished with school, I went into the existential post-graduate haze. The sort of catatonic, “What am I going to do with my life? I’ve got too much stuff to process.” Oh my goodness. I think it’s something I’m looking forward to getting back into, now that I have more of a sense of my own intent, or what kind of space I’d like to create with my voice, which is something I was never really aware of at that point. There was too much stuff going on. It was great for its own thickness.

What were your biggest takeaways from training?
A lot of them sound pretty obvious when you say them out loud, but I guess the biggest one I found was a sensitivity to tension, and a sensitivity to where that’s held in the body. And the best singing I feel that I’ve done is the most mindful, the kind that allows the sound to experience the whole path without being encumbered. So in other words, getting out of your own way. Which is kind of a beautiful way to look at the creative process in general. I mean, I know that the sound is coming out of me, and it’s a very embodied experience, so there’s a weird paradox that happens because the more you get out of the way of the sound — that natural, innate tone — the more resonant it becomes and the more embodied it is. So it seems like there’s this weird inverse relationship. The harder I try to make it sound good — in other words, to make the sound felt, or hold tension in it — the less honest it feels. That would be the big one, I think. Just trying to open up the soft palate and let the head drift down and drop the sound all the way into the belly. Actually, there’s a great deal of things going on just to make a note happen, right? It’s fascinating.

It’s really funny learning to sing. So often it’s also the process of learning not to trust your own ear, and learning to let the song sing you.
Yeah, totally! Because you get to a point — and I’m not sure if you experience this, too — where you have a bag of tricks, and you know that if you’re having kind of an off day, and you just want to get through the song, you can just make things pretty. I’m not sure how else to describe it other than that. The sound comes from kind of an incorrect place, but you know that you can just get through it. It’s been a real challenge to make sure I don’t go down that path and end up in an overly decorative place, where you’re just saying, “Oh, I’m bailing on this line,” or, “I don’t have enough air, so I’m just going to put a fancy trill in,” or, “I’m going to cake it with vibrato,” or something like that. Make sure you get out of the decorative zone. I mean, I think sentimental’s okay. As a lover of emotional singing, I don’t think anything’s wrong with that. There’s a weird decorative space that happens when you’re not really fully engaged with what your body is doing.

When I was studying voice, my teacher said something like, “There’s a big difference between wanting to impress your audience and wanting to move your audience.” In your interview with Cokemachineglow, you talk about being uncertain about the architecture of certain classical pieces. I was always skeptical about that, but it was about finding a place where I could look at those pieces and figure out a way to sing them where it wasn’t me just trying to be decorative, but also really feeling the soul of the thing.
Yeah, because I think the really good stuff, I mean, like Mahler…well, Mahler’s probably not a good example for a singer. He didn’t write very many vocal pieces… well, I guess he did. But, you know, you have to put in into context. To our ear, there’s a lot of romantic frilliness to it, right? But it was really potent at the time. He chose the correct tools for the movement that you’re talking about, that sense of wanting to move the audience instead of impress them. We hear it now, and just because it’s so processed or digested, we would read a lot of it as mere decoration because it doesn’t have any element of risk to it anymore. But if you can get through that and still access whatever it is Mahler was tapping into — that’s a huge challenge. I don’t think a lot of people who are into the repertoire really go down that far. It’s interesting.

Going in a different direction, I was really curious about how you came across artists like Stars of the Lid and Eluvium. There’s something about making the leap to drone for the first time. When I discovered those two artists, it was like the whole universe opening up.
It was very palpable. I can totally feel that. I had started to become aware of textural music without really becoming aware that I was into that, or that it was the texture that I was responding to. I also liked a lot of industrial-type stuff when I was going through high school. Like Nine Inch Nails.

Yeah, the timbre of the sounds was something I was really super into. And I guess that led me down into stuff that sounded a bit more like that. So I think I would probably credit Nine Inch Nails, as much as I hate to do so.

No! I’m totally with you on Nine Inch Nails.
What ended up happening was I had a radio show. When I was going to university, a friend of mine had me as a co-host. Oh, you know what, the other thing I did: I lived the dream of the nineties. I was living in my parents’ basement and working in a record store, so that was a huge education for me because I basically took my pay home in CDs. And bless my parents’ hearts, they didn’t say anything about it. I owe them a great deal to this day for letting them do my thing. Having this slacker kid who was listening to Nine Inch Nails and Celine Dion in the basement. Don’t quote me on that. No, no, I’m just kidding. So it was the record store and the radio show. I think those two things eventually brought me to Eluvium and Massive Attack and Stars of the Lid and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. That was quite revelatory. I didn’t know that you could organize sound in that way. I think my taste in music in 1998, 1999 got a whole lot better.

I was trying to think about why I was drawn to Eluvium and Stars of the Lid at the time that I was, in relation to classic rock or more dramatic things like Nine Inch Nails or Sigur Rós, and it’s interesting because those particular artists seem to inhabit a space where, even though what they’re doing is really meditative, they’re written in such a way where the chords, the chord changes, the “melodies” of the pieces feel grand and dramatic, except in a very languid way. 
Yeah, they had this kind of magisterial quality. Also, a strange, absurd quality, I think. Like it crested the threshold of what I was able to understand, and they kind of used that languid quality to get there. It’s interesting. I tried to think about what separated something like…I was just listening to a Brian McBride record not too long ago. You know what, I bought a CD player the other day, and I was super excited. I haven’t had a CD player for years, and I’ve had all these CDs just sitting here on the shelf. So I broke down and bought a CD player and was listening to Brian McBride, and it didn’t quite hit that same… I don’t know. There was a very big distinction between Brian McBride’s solo work and the work that he does with Stars of the Lid. And I’m not going to say one is better or worse, but I could definitely hear that it was a smaller component of a larger whole. And again, I don’t mean to suggest his work is diminished when he’s on his own or something, but there was something kind of missing, and I think it was that grandeur. The scope was a bit curtailed or more composed or something like that. There’s an element of bands like Eluvium and Stars of the Lid that also sounds like it’s discovering itself at the same time you’re listening to it. Like it’s a happening as opposed to a composition, maybe? A kind of presence.

When you started working with breaking objects and analog technology, what got you to the point where you decided, “I’m going to try this project and do something different from what I was doing before?” What made you decide to say, “I’m going to start making music again?”
Coming up with an intellectual response to that is a bit difficult without diving into something like… because it felt somewhat necessary. I’ve always really loved… well to say I love music is an understatement. I think music is the very powerful… it’s going to sound horribly cheesy out loud, but music is what moves me. And I guess it was just a matter of wanting to join the conversation. I’m actually kinda glad I didn’t go to school for music because I learned a great deal about how to make music vicariously, as I was going through my master’s degree. And I guess it’s better to say that I learned a great deal about how the creative process works, and I was able to have a relationship with the creative process using a medium that I wasn’t necessarily precious with. I was able to take different sorts of risks within the realm of visual art that I don’t think I was ready to do with music just because it meant so much to me.

Of course, the other side of the coin to that was that, when I was going through my master’s degree, I ended up with a really strong impetus toward a conceptual background, which I don’t think is a bad thing. In fact, I’m really grateful for that, too. So I suppose when I started making music, I had known for a long time that I wanted to express myself that way, or that that was an honest way in which I could join the great conversation of life and so on. But when I was starting out, trying to do it, that conceptual foundation from my master’s degree started to want to be paid attention to. And I guess between that and a newfound love of textural music, those two things combined to make me want to explore some of the things that I was doing in grad school in a musical environment.

It was actually difficult to begin with because, when you’re doing your first record, you of course have all of the ideas and you don’t know what you want it to sound like, and it was actually really challenging to distill all of that information down into something succinct without it just being soup. You want to have your theory of everything right to begin with, and of course that’s total hubris. I listen back to those first recordings, and I totally respect them for where they came from, and there’s a certain lovely naïvete to them, I think. And I’m super grateful to have just done them. That’s kinda cool. But it was definitely a long birthing process. Trying to figure out what it was that they wanted, and trying to develop an ear for responding to it a bit more honestly.

It sounds like ‘A Forgetting Place’ was done in a pretty quick burst, and then ‘A Turn of Breath’ was going back to a lot of recordings and tinkering with them, with Sean McCann looking over your shoulder while you did it. What were the different challenges of working in those two ways? What did you come away with conceptually after finishing those two projects?
This is going to sound funny when I say it out loud because I think a lot of the stuff I make is quite… I would definitely not call it minimal, but a sense of constraint, creatively, was something very profound to discover within the music-making process. For A Forgetting Place specifically, the constraint was: it’s going to be vocals, and because I belabor things, I just want to put it out. And so I gave myself a deadline, and between those two things I think it ended up not too bad.

A Turn of Breath was my very first time allowing somebody else into the creative process as far as composition is concerned. And I did so by way of having Sean edit a great deal of stuff. Which really didn’t feel good at the time. But not because of anything that Sean did, but just because I was encountering a great deal of blockage in my own creative process, and having a large ego I didn’t know I had was being revealed to me. I didn’t know that I was so precious with some of the things I was putting down to tape. So he’d come in and edit great swaths of it, and he was totally right. At the time, there was a huge growing pain. But the sense of constraint that he brought to the project…while it was maybe not something I enjoyed while we were going through it, I look back on it and I’m really grateful for that. And so the few projects I’ve done since then have all had at least something that I’ve constrained myself with.

And it’s really interesting because this is something that I tell my students a lot, and I think parentheses within the creative process are not only important but necessary. Otherwise, everything is just everything. You’re not going to know where to stand within a particular expression. And I hadn’t quite learned that yet on my own, and I’d been espousing this to my students for a long time, but actually walking the walk is quite difficult. So that’s one of the ways I’ve been trying to move forward with the new stuff. For example, with Cradle for the Wanting, my constraint there was that it was all just going to be voice, and nothing else. I mean, obviously there’s a great deal of tape manipulation, but I told myself that there weren’t going to be any other instruments on it except for me singing. So that edited down a great deal of the stuff I was working on. It had to be finished at a particular point, and the album format demands a kind of temporal aspect. It has to be twenty minutes on one side, twenty minutes on the other.

How did it feel to make the album under those constraints? 
It felt more like the fabric of everything else that was happening in my life was participating in the creative process. Because of the constraint both conceptually — as far as using the voice was concerned — and temporally — deadlinedly, as far as getting it done was concerned — I found that those two things helped me a lot to get out of the way and just let the project speak for itself. So when I was in the studio, a lot of the time I was using more of a descriptive lens as opposed to an expressive lens. And when I listen back to Cradle for the Wanting now, I can hear a lot more of the spaces that I was moving through at the time. Just processing life. As opposed to before, when I was trying to really “say something,” and engage in a meaningful discussion. I mean, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but Cradle for the Wanting seems to be a bit more contemplative, or I hear a lot less of myself in it, and a lot more of the periphery of what was happening. And I kinda like that. I think it’s a lot more of a description, as opposed to an expression, if that makes sense.

When I was trying to tease out for myself how ‘Cradle for the Wanting’ sounds different to me from ‘A Turn of Breath,’ I think in part it sounds more immediately cohesive. It also sounds a little more erratic in places. There’s a bit less of the impression that each piece has a particular, determined sense of what it’s going to do. Instead it has this stronger sense of potentially spiraling off in any different direction at any given time. I really like both of those things. I get the sense with, say, “Empty, Circle, Tremble,” where something about the music seemed a bit more raw and jagged and… maybe not off the rails, but having this sense of, “Where’s this going to go?” Were there any pieces that sprung out really quickly, or were there any that felt like you were about to turn on the edge of working on them too much and had to step back?
I actually think that the record ended at a really good time. I think anything more would have been… I do tend to get quite obsessive about stuff. I’m really grateful for Sean’s input because it caused me not to be so meticulous or obsessive about it. When I started doing that, he stepped in and said, “No, actually I liked it before. You’re working on it too much.” And I was able to say, “Okay, another human has vetted this, so I can pull back from it.”  Anything else that would have been added or taken away would have been a little obsessive, so that’s a very gratifying feeling.

You also mentioned some of the pieces are going “off the rails,” and the other really nice thing that was happening was allowing the pieces to be a bit more responsive. Two of the pieces came out of a long jam that I did in the studio one night. “Each All in Another All” and “Habit Worn and Wandering.” They were like 30 minutes long, each. And it was great. I sent it to Sean on a whim. I’d already sent to him what I’d thought was a finished album a couple months before that, and then I sent him some of the stuff I was working on. Unbeknownst to me, he didn’t know that I’d thought I’d sent him a finished album, and he said, “These are great! Where are we going to put them?” And I thought, “Oh, yeah, okay, I guess we’re still working on this.” Which is good. But those came together really quickly, and I think it was because I hadn’t really intended on using them at all, it was a very easy expressive process at that point. And it’s really interesting to me that you mentioned “Empty, Circle, Tremble” as one that feels like it’s going off the rails because that one was the total opposite. That one has a bunch of studio recordings from all over the place, and it’s very heavily collaged and layered, and it did not come together very quickly. It’s about four other songs that got pieced together and distilled and repieced together. So it’s got a lot of contrast to it, for sure.

When I listened to the pieces and tried to catch the words I heard, it seemed like a lot of those words had connections to ideas or lyrics on ‘A Turn of Breath.’ Fragments like the word “station,” “half-heard and fleeting.” On the lyrical side, it seemed very much like a continuation of ‘A Turn of Breath,’ with the lyrics poking into the imperfect, intentionally slightly degraded but majestic sense A Turn of Breath was moving toward. When you were writing the lyrics or singing them, did you feel like there was anything that drove you toward what you were singing about this time?
I think I would go back to that conceptual foundation that I was talking about before. These notions of life as an act of becoming, and beauty within degradation and deterioration — these have been kernels that I’ve been really drawn to, ideas that have a lot of gravity for me. When I listen back to my compositions and I look at the art I create, it all seems to do the same thing. There’s some kind of aesthetic drive or core that I seem to constantly orbit. And the ways in which I describe that core shift a great deal. I think for other artists, it’s a bit more of the opposite direction, where they go wandering and that core intent shifts, and that’s where the art is for them. But definitely with me, I feel like I’ve just got one idea, and I’m hitting it hard, and I’ve been trying to say it for a long time. And it’s probably a very simple idea, and sometimes that expression is really joyous and sometimes it’s really frustrating. And sometimes it can be very repetitive, and sometimes that repetition can be really generative. But I do tend to come back to these same ideas that you were talking about, these becoming forms and notions of decay and circling. This is definitely the nebula of my experience.

There’s something almost paradoxical about that. That the focus on change and shifting and becoming — perpetual change and alteration — is the conceptual place you’re anchored into.
Well, it’s a fascinating way to live one’s life, for sure. Sometimes it’s good, and you get up and you’re like, “Yeah! Becoming! Everything’s changing and that’s great!” And other times, there’s a bit of despair. [Laughs]

Being realistic about the ups-and-downs of accepting change.
I do think that, as far as our experience is concerned — if we could talk in grandiose, universal statements — that is a huge component of human life. It obviously sounds so cliché to say, but change is a constant, and coming to terms with the meaninglessness within that is actually really profound and sacred, and that’s something I feel the need to have a relationship with. And I think I do so to varying degrees of success, but it’s something I always endeavor toward, whether I like it or not.

You’ve talked before about being in this place where you’re putting your voice out in the front but you’re also altering it through the process of using tapes. I was curious if performing a cappella, with minimal effects, seems like a worthwhile project, or if getting that stripped down would make sense to you personally.
Up to this point, the tape affectation has been a really generative thing for me, and I really value not just the aesthetic texture that the tape decks impart, but the creative gesture they allow as well. They interject a certain randomness, a certain loss of control that I think is really profound, or at least really important for my own creative process. But I can’t honestly tell you the degree to which that’s affect, and the degree to which it’s something generative and necessary. I believe in saying things as succinctly as possible, and so I’m at an interesting point right now because I’ve completed a whole bunch of work, and I feel like I’ve put an interesting period at the end of a particular sentence. Cradle for the Wanting is coming out very shortly, and I’ve just finished a couple of projects, too. And there’s been an interesting downtime, which I’m not used to, and I’ve been reveling in it and saying, “Well, how are things moving? What’s going on?” And I haven’t touched the machines for the last month or so. So I’m in this wondering period of, “Well, what do these aspects bring to the process, and where in the orbit am I at this point?”

I think the idea of doing something totally stripped down is kind of terrifying in some ways. I don’t know if I could hold it, or if there would be too little to say. I’m not too sure. It’s definitely something I’m interested in trying, and I don’t know whether it would function or not. I am enjoying lying fallow for a bit, and something will pop out of it. I don’t necessarily think doing a cappella would be a bad thing. It would be interesting to see how things got stripped down, and whether I’ve been using the tape decks as a fallback crutch at this point, or if they are now part of my bag of tricks. I can’t tell you.


Your thoughts about the loss of control and figuring out what to do next reminded me of something Vijay Iyer said. Someone asked him, “How much of your music is improvised?” He responded that he was frustrated with the idea that there’s a discrete time when you’re improvising and a discrete time when you’re not. When we’re living our daily lives, it’s not like we’re saying, “When are you improvising your life and when are you not?” Most of the time our lives are improvisation. The times when we’ve locked into a plan: those are the special times. Thinking about music in that way as reflecting how much improv our daily lives allow frees up all this space to think about improv in a much broader, less designated sense.
Yeah, totally, I resonate with that for sure. I’ve always hated the term “experimental music” because it bifurcates music and process. It says, “Well, this music is percolating, and therefore it’s not music. But this over here, this is actually composed.” I think as human beings we’re really poor at prediction, but what we are really good at is response, responding to what’s going on momentously, or phenomenologically. [Laughs] But I don’t think we’re good at that constructed time you were talking about, so that’s a really powerful way to look at it: that improvisation is actually the nominal form, or that improvisation is us in our normal state. And there is no experimental music.

I remember reading an interview with Brian McBride where he said something like, “When I hear the term experimental music, I just think of people who record the sound of an ice cube melting as it sits on an LP.”
Yeah, it opens up the door to a lot of absurd stuff. And not profoundly absurd, but ironically absurd. This is getting down into my theory of everything for art-making in general, and I won’t bore you with all that…

No, go ahead!
So ice-cube-on-a-record as experimental music is definitely a gesture that is trying really hard to be as meaningless as possible, and so therefore kind of disconnects with its core intent. And I think the other side of the coin is this really heavily academic music that we’ve created entire universities to uphold, wherein you go through this particular path, and you get accredited as a musician or a composer, and then you create music that only other composers and musicians can understand. And not only that, but even those composers and musicians will never understand, because then you get this joust of brainpans, right? So both artist as genius and artist as ironic auteur…yeah, I just don’t have time for either of those.

But it’s really interesting because when you say, “I’m an artist” — well, not you, necessarily — but generally when people say “composer” or “artist,” they’re talking about one of those two things. And I think both of those ideas are totally separate from where actual honest creativity is, which is a process of connecting the dots, or a process of trying to understand what we’re all doing. Maybe not even in a profound sense, as far as what life means, but I think if people shroud something in experimental irony and create a disconnect thereby, or shroud something in impenetrable intellectualism and say, “Well, I have worked very hard to become a Master’s of Fine Arts, and only those that have ascended the ranks will ever hope to understand,” they’re both obfuscating themselves into trying to convince people that they’re brilliant, right? And that misses the point, I think.

The real avant-garde, I think, is within… well, what you were talking about as far as blurring the lines between composition and improvisation, or seeing both of them as part of the same movement. And trying to have a creative process that is responsive and does something active, as far as providing a space within which people can experience that presence for themselves or engage in those kinds of conversations, and feel empowered to do so. That’s the real avant-garde these days. It doesn’t necessarily look like anything in particular, but something that has that sense of the absurd or that sense of risk or that sense of presence — that is good.

I’ve gotten to this point where I feel like it’s not so much artwork — the product — that’s avant-garde, but instead it’s what social context an artist places that artwork in. There’s a part of me that’s gotten really tired of just following music where the musician plays at the venues where there’s this focus on building cultural capital — where there’s that narrowness that turns into extreme self-definition — versus placing things in a context where someone can be surprised and have to really grapple with it and not necessarily know what it is on first glance, but feel really moved by it in a way that’s hard to put into words.
I guess I don’t understand why an artist would do something just for the sake of cultural capital. I can’t imagine that being a very interesting way to live one’s life. I guess more power to the people who do that. And I guess this argument presupposes that I’m considering myself as somebody who doesn’t do that, which…

The majority of us are at least a little bit complicit…
…so choosing where you live on that line just because of where we live culturally and societally is always a bit of an existential crisis, I think. But yeah, it’s really interesting. I actually haven’t been playing shows around very much. I went on one date of an otherwise aborted American tour, which didn’t get off the ground for bureaucratic reasons. But I got into this mind-state of, “What am I trying to do here as a live performer, and what kind of space do I want to create?” Just recapitulating this Ian-William-Craigness of the whole thing…and I decided that I just needed to take a break and take a step back from it. I don’t really know what it means to get up in front of people and perform at this point, because it’s never really struck me that performing is a good thing. I’m not comfortable just getting up re-creating the album experience, or trying to. It’s not necessarily that I don’t want to give people what they want, but I think the best art gives people what they didn’t think that they wanted. So I’m not sure where I’m at with those things. But Vancouver’s also interesting in that regard, because it’s a very economically challenging city, and they way that culture moves here is definitely not something I’m used to.

In what way?
Well, there’s a large population here, but it doesn’t seem to have a lot of cultural critical mass because the way people engage with the city is both through economic means and through kind of ecotourism means, I suppose. They live in Vancouver in order to experience the “wilderness.” And don’t get me wrong: it’s stunningly beautiful here. Going on a hike is not a bad thing. But I think there’s kind of an exodus from the culture-driven communities because people try to engage with so-called nature here. And when they are in the city, they’re just trying to make it because the rents are so high and it’s a very difficult place to find work in. So I think those two factors combine to keep people from engaging with any kind of attention at all to cultural spaces.

And I’m just being very across-the-board here. I don’t mean to belittle the many wonderful individuals in town who don’t follow this paradigm I’m describing. So this is obviously just large movements, and there are some wonderful people here for sure. But I think on the whole, it’s really hard to sustain attention in this place, and so people start diving into what you describe as cultural capital, and that kind of stands in as far as artistic expression is concerned, not only from the artist’s perspective, but also from the audience’s perspective. So there’s not a lot of attention paid to things that are not what people are expecting, I guess. And yes, I do apologize to the people who are paying attention, because they are there. I’m sort of ranting and off-the-rails a little bit, but a strange combination of not knowing what kind of space I want to create, trying to distill what it is I’m expressing into something that doesn’t have decoration or is trying not to participate in those things, and also trying to find an audience for it who’s also doing the same things — that’s a juggling act for sure. But in some ways, this is the greatest place in the world to do that because it’s such a harsh enivronment, as far as attention goes, that if you can make it in Vancouver, you can make it pretty much anywhere as an artist. [Laughs]

I think anytime you have a monoculture like that, it’s really tough. It just steamrolls through everything. I’m originally from Edmonton, which is of course the great boomtown because the entire economic situation of Alberta is predicated upon oil money, essentially. And that’s really weird, especially since all of the actual manufacturing happens very far away from any of the big centers. So you have this huge environmental destruction, and yet that’s what literally fuels — for lack of a better term — the entire province. And Alberta was the most conservative province for a long time in Canada’s history, and yet it still spent the most money on its welfare programs and its cultural programs…just incredible. You could go to Edmonton and just be totally fine as an artist, as long as you didn’t think about it too hard, right? [Laughs] There’s that sense of, “Well, we’re not going to think about this. We obviously need these things. We can’t question that.”

If you had all the resources you wanted at your disposal, and you could do any kind of performance you wanted, can you imagine what that would be like?
When I went down to the States, I played at Hopscotch in Raleigh, and it was a wonderful time. I was really grateful to have been asked to play. But I was stuck in all these visa problems, which was very stressful, and I had to cancel a whole bunch of dates. I didn’t know I was going to Raleigh until a couple of nights before. As far as the organizers were concerned, they had already started getting congressmen to petition on my behalf. It was just such a big… my goodness. And the congressmen in North Carolina came back and said, “Yeah, there’s basically no way this is going to happen.” But for some reason or other we decided to give it a couple of days before canceling it, and as it turned out that worked. I was supposed to jump on a plane on Friday, and I found out the visa had been accepted on Tuesday.

But I’d basically written it off, and so I jumped back into my rehearsal space and tried to reconstruct everything, because I’d already started dismantling stuff. It got to a point where I thought everything was half-okay, and the night before I was supposed to leave, I thought, “Well, should I rehearse, or should I go home and sleep, because this weekend is going to be very stressful?” And I thought, “I’ll go rehearse for half an hour.” It was the first week of school, and so there was the onslaught of brand new students and orientations and syllabi and faculty and so on, and I thought, “You know what, I’m already kind of stressed out, so I should sleep, but I’m going to make sure everything’s okay,” because I’m kind of compulsive. And it’s a really good thing I did because, about five minutes into the rehearsal, my reel-to-reel suffered complete system failure. I’d spent the whole summertime building new decks and new instruments that would fit into a suitcase, and I got it down to two tape decks, and I thought, “This is great. This is a nice distillation. I can handle this. It fits in a bag. Perfect.” And so half of my tape decks were now destroyed. It was irreconcilable. I mean the caps were calked out. There was basically no way you could find a capstan motor for a Fostex the night before you’re supposed to jump on a plane. So I had this big crisis on my hands, and I had to cobble something else entirely together.

And because of that situation, just this past weekend I thought, “Okay, well, I’ve been going at this from the direction of trying to find decks and manipulating them using my caveman knowledge of how tape decks work.” Because they’re old and already dying by the time I get them, they don’t last for too long. And I enjoy that deteriorative aspect of it, and I think that’s been really important, but this time it failed completely to the point where, if I hadn’t rehearsed and then gone on stage, this thing would have had five minutes of life left in it, and the performance wouldn’t have gone very far. It was actually really good that it broke at that point. I admit that it was a little bit of drone karaoke when I got up on stage. There was some prerecorded stuff; don’t tell anyone. But the performance went well, and I thought it got reviewed alright, so everything was good.

But it started making me think that maybe I’ve been going around this the wrong way. Maybe what I really need to do is build something from the ground up. And instead of asking the tape deck what it is that it can do, I should observe what I’m interested in — some of the salient parts of how I manipulate tape, or what those components are and then build up from there, as opposed to deconstructing something preexisting. Losing control and deterioration is one thing, but complete system failure is something else altogether. And it was nice to make that distinction.

So in my head I’ve started to build this perfect tape recorder. If I had infinite resources, I would take what I see as the generative, most important aspects of the sound, and try and find a way to build an artifact that was unique to myself. For example, I think it’s important that I have something that remembers a previous sound, so something that loops. Something that also deteriorates in an active way, something where I can control that deterioration. So in my head I saw these giant cylinders of tape, and I stated thinking, “Well, why would you use electricity? Why not just have a hand-cranked thing?” And then it’s starting to go into the realm of, “Why have electricity at all? Maybe we shouldn’t be dependent on that. Why not have a wax cylinder on stage, and that can be what you create the loops on?” So in my head I saw this giant gramophone contraption, which would have a needle you could draw a sound onto a wax cylinder with, and then place a sound source onto. So I’d be turning a crank and etching a wax cylinder and putting a physical amplifier on it to create an actual, physical deteriorating choir on stage. And I think that what I would do if I had unlimited resources.

That’d be amazing.
Well, I’ve started to try to figure out at least the tape deck one. I think I’m some years off of actually creating a mechanical one, but I think that’s what I would like to do. But I know an embarrassingly small amount about what actually happens inside of a tape machine. For somebody whose work is predicated on making a tape deck do stuff, I really don’t know what I’m doing. I probably know more than I think I do, but when something goes that horribly wrong, I just stare at it and go, “Yeah, so this thing is magic after all.” I am completely powerless, so hooray.

Would you have an ideal setting you’d like to play in, or an ideal audience you’d like to play for?
With a lot of the music that I make, the conceptual question of space comes up a lot. More than I’m drawn to textural music, I’m drawn to spatial music. I’m really interested in the kinds of spaces music creates, and the way that allows me to understand space, and how we interact with space. And so creating a live environment within which those questions are engaged with is really important to me. One of the things I don’t like about going to performances is that everything gets jammed into a PA system, and there’s a distinct separation between performer and audience, and everything is very loud, and all the intricacies of the sound are obfuscated by the acoustics of the room and the fact that you’re two two-channeling everything. There’s a kind of brutal music/audience thing that’s happening. And not just from the aspect of performer/audience, but it’s coming at you from the front, and it’s getting channeled through essentially two speakers. It seems very arbitrary to me. I would like to do something where I did have control of space, as far as surrounding someone is concerned. Do you know Janet Cardiff? Have you heard of her?

I don’t think so.
She started out as a visual artist, but she creates huge sound installations. I saw a piece of hers in Berlin called The Murder of Crows, and I don’t remember too much about the actual content of the piece, but what she did was fill an old airplane hangar with something absolutely astounding, like 300 speakers. Maybe that’s hyperbole, but I think it was something like that at least, anyway. Speakers of all different sorts, in all kinds of different places. And it was the most amazing spatial thing I think I’ve ever experienced. There was a piece of theater that played out in front of you, but there were no actors, there were no people. It was all just the sound. So if someone were walking across the stage, she had a speaker in each place where those footsteps would be, and it was the most uncanny thing. It was the greatest CGI I have ever not seen. There was this really spooky dissonance between your brain swearing that there was something there, and not being able to understand that there actually wasn’t something there. It was so disembodying and uncanny, and I think I sat through the performance maybe seven or eight times in a row, each time not understanding how there couldn’t be people on stage doing things.

And I don’t mean to say that I want to do that, but something that played with space in that regard would be really interesting to do. And so I think having a deck which had multiple tracks on it which you could separate, and being able to send those out to particular places in the room, and then responding as a performer to the way in which the whole space was working performatively — I think that would be super interesting. So if I had unlimited resources, not only would I build the instrument itself, but I would also build some kind of institution where I could play with those aspects. I don’t have any delusions of being able to achieve such a thing, but I guess you never know. That would be pretty amazing, though.

Going all the way back to the beginning of our interview, now that you have a CD player again, are there any albums or works of sounds that you really want to tell people about?
Lovesliescrushing is the very first CD that I picked up off my CD player. It’s an album called Glissceule. I love shoegaze, but I think jamming it into the shoegaze moniker is a bit unfair. It’s shimmery and smeary and gorgeous, and it has that same sense of figuring itself out as it goes along. It sounds like a Cy Twombly painting. I was also listening to Webern this morning, specifically the Emerson String Quartet did an album of his quartet pieces, and listening to the way in which he plays with all those romantic ideas and then completely breaks them. I really like Schoenberg, too, but I think Webern has deeper emotional content.

What I’ve been really into in the last few years is digging into the tape renaissance. One of the things I’ve been missing, ironically, in this age of Pandora and Spotify and this streaming anytime anywhere mentality — though we don’t have Pandora in Canada anymore, do we — is a sense of discovery. Which is weird, right? Because you think it’d be the total opposite. But there is something kind of cheap about those streaming services. I read a Joanna Newsom interview not long ago where she said that they were like the banana of the music industry and they gave off a strange smell. I thought that was a really good description of them. So seeking out some of these cassette labels has been really good for that sense of discovery because you actually get an artifact, and I haven’t heard of any of these people, and some of it’s absolute crap, and some of it’s absolutely amazing. But I really enjoy that a lot of people have been taking a lot of risk with this format, because it’s an actual thing, and it’s disseminatable, and you can make it very quickly. I’ve discovered an artist named Dog in the Evening. I don’t know anything about them. They’re from Japan, they’ve got some stuff out on Constellation Tatsu and Patient Sounds, and it’s so spatial and minimal and tongue-in-cheek. It’s got a sense of mirth, convicted mirth, without being zany. It’s so good. The Phinery label, which I think is from Denmark, just bats 1,000. If I could sign up as a subscription service to these guys and just say, “Whatever you do, just send it to me,” I would. It’s a bit difficult because they just press fifty copies of each thing, so you have to get it the day of. Those have been momentous discoveries and rediscoveries.